Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic plans to begin powered test flights of its rocket spaceship by 2011, marking a key milestone before launching regular service, the space tourism startup's president said Wednesday.
Will Whitehorn didn't specify when the company would put paying customers into space, but said he believes most of the major hurdles in the project have already been cleared.
"We're not looking at a huge amount of time," Whitehorn said during a visit to Dubai for a spaceflight conference. "As the year breaks into next year, we'll start moving into rocket motor testing and then into space."
Virgin has been signing up customers vying for the chance to be among its first passengers.
Whitehorn said the company has received nearly 330 bookings from customers who have put down deposits of up to $200,000 each to secure a seat. The company has so far taken in about $45 million in deposits, he said.
That enthusiasm has the company expecting to be profitable within two years of starting operations, Whitehorn said.
Virgin Galactic got a big financial boost last July when Aabar Investments, a state-backed investment fund from the oil-rich emirate of Abu Dhabi, agreed to pump about $280 million into the company in exchange for nearly a third of the startup. Abu Dhabi is the capital and the largest of the seven semiautonomous sheikdoms making up the United Arab Emirates.
Whitehorn said Virgin, unlike some other commercial spaceflight companies, is not looking for any additional funding for now.
Parent company Virgin Group has put more than $100 million into its spaceflight venture since forming it in 2004. The company is working to develop flight vehicles with Scaled Composites, the Mojave, Calif.-based aeronautical firm that won the X Prize to build the first privately funded manned spaceship.
Virgin Galactic has yet to show that it can put paying customers in orbit, or make a profit doing so. Its bullet-shaped SpaceShipTwo rocket-powered vehicle will piggyback to 50,000 feet (15,240 meters) on a large jet-powered plane before blasting into outer spae at an altitude beyond 62 miles (100 kilometers).
The craft is based on Scaled Composites founder and famed aviation designer Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne prototype that won the X Prize in 2004.
Virgin unveiled the first of its SpaceShipTwo vehicles, christened "Enterprise," in Mojave in December.
Whitehorn said the ship has largely wrapped up ground testing and will now undergo a series of flight tests, including being dropped from its launch vehicle for a number of unpowered glides.
Meanwhile, Virgin is working to finish a launch site in New Mexico, which this week enacted a law that aims to promote commercial spaceflight by requiring passengers to give their consent and be informed of the risks involved.
Several other companies are working on suborbital passenger spaceships, including XCOR Aerospace and Blue Origin.
This report was supplemented by msnbc.com.